Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
Our Town
2006-04-02 07:59
by Alex Belth

Murray Kempton was a famous New York newspaperman for more than fifty years. I've tried to read his stuff on occasion and there is something about his language that I can't get past--I've always had a difficult time appreciating and understanding his work. At the same time, I've also felt that I should get him, that I'm missing something.

Oh, well. I did love him as a New York character, however--he was legendary for riding his bicycle all around town. In 1994, I was working as a waiter at a modest neighbhorhood restaurant on the Upper West Side and had the pleasure to serve Mr. Kempton lunch one afternoon. He had clamps around his ankles so that his pants would not get caught on the chain of his bike. We chatted some and he was every bit the gentleman.

Anyhow, I bring Kempton up because I ran across an article he wrote for "Sport" magazine back in 1962 about the Mets called "Back at the Polo Grounds." Since we were talking about New York fans a couple of days ago, I thought you guys might enjoy this:

The New York of the Giants, Dodgers, and Yankes was an annual re-evocation of the War between the States. The Yankees were the North, if you could concieve a North grinding along with wealth and weight and without the excuse of Lincoln. The Giants and Dodgers were the Confederacy, often undermanned and underequipped and running then because it could not hit. You went to Yankee Stadium if you were the kind of man who enjoyed yelling for Grant at Richmond; you went to the National League parks to see Pickett's cahrge...

The old Dodger fans werer the kind of people who picket. The old Giant fans would be embarrassed to do anything so conspicuous, but they were the kind of people who refuse to cross picket lines. Yankee fans are the kind of people who think they own the company the picket line is thrown around. It is impossible for anyone who does not live in New York to know what it truly is to hate the Yankees. As writer Leonard Koppett has said: 'The residents of other cities who hate the Yankees really only hate New York.'...But, if you live in New York and you're not a Yankee fan, you hate them the way you hate Consolidated Edison or your friendly bank.

Kempton's essay can be in found in the fine collection, "Baseball: A Literary Anthology."

2006-04-02 08:56:27
1.   markp
Isn't this kind of thing a bit over the top? Why do people have to go to such extreme lengths to denigrate a baseball team they don't like?
I also find it interesting that he equates the Dodgers to the confederacy, considering the Dodgers broke the color line and the Confederacy fought and died to keep the color line intact.
The stuff about the Giants and Dodgers being "undermanned and underequipped" shows an absurd lack of knowledge about either team's history (or conveniently misplacing reality to make a point.) Both teams had quite a bit of talent up to that point. The Giants had won quite a few championships before the Yankees won their first. They're the team kicked the "upstart" Yankees out of the polo grounds.
The Yankees played in the "rebel" league, which is what the AL was. The Giants are the team that refused to play in the 1904 World Series because McGraw said the AL wasn't worthy.
I think if you look at the date the article was written, the author's bias becomes much clearer. The NY press had spent a lot of 1961 ripping Roger Maris because he had the audacity to hit a lot of HRs after spending a lot of the 50's ripping Mickey Mantle, Roger's counterpart in the 61 assault on Ruth's record. The huggable Mets were the toast of the town, and had the Press' darling Casey as their manager. The article isn't really about the Yankee fans as opposed to other NY baseball fans. It's about the author's personal bias.
2006-04-02 09:17:52
2.   rbj
Was Mr. Kempton originally from the South?
2006-04-02 10:35:14
3.   wsporter
Murray Kempton was a contemporary of Menken (worked as his copy boy) and an important Journalist and stylist. He was born in Baltimore; a rough town at the time (still is) with some curious racial sensibilities. He was a tough guy who flat out just didn't care who he took on or where he did it. He was a labor organizer and Pulitzer Prize winner. He was also held up as an an example for many a school boy my age of exactly how not to write (the penguins at my school were clueless). This is a great shame in that many a man my age has no idea of how to write stylistically or otherwise. I'm surprised at you Alex, dude had some chops. Here's a tribute to him from Salon. It's a short URL so I didn't shorten it.

2006-04-02 12:15:42
4.   jayd
I have a Chinese fighting fish named Derek and this morning I went out on the back patio, picked up a gallon container of what was formerly Derek's distilled water and what had become an all purpose cleaning concoction I use about the house. It's watery enough to mistake for water but dumping it into Derek's fishbowl caused it to bubble up with an evil smell – thereby instantly alerting me to my thoughtless and precipitous act of cold blooded (his) ichthycide.

Aghast, I grabbed the fish bowl and tried to dump it out in the sink. Happily the drain caught the little feller and I quickly dumped him into bowl of cold, yet clean, tap water. I brought the temperature up to alleviate this second shock to Derek's system and searched the house for more of his distilled water (we use it in the steam iron).

I finally transferred him to his fishbowl and watched him lurch about like some drunken red sox lout. You usually don't want to replace more than a third of your aquarium water, so shock three was Derek finding himself totally out of his familiar water. This is not good, I thought grimly.

Hopefully Derek will survive, but the ichthyomantic implications here for the upcoming season are troubling. No less than a couple days ago I was counting Derek's tail flicks during his feeding and computing the number of Yankee wins this season into a complex mathematical formula I have perfected over the past couple of years. 115, incredible yet scientific. Now I'm looking at video replays of Mike Lowell's homerun and astonishing string of hits at the very end of spring training and cringing at the thought of some fluke bath tub accident to Derek Jeter.

I guess it could be worse. I could have named the little guy Mariano.

I thought today was opening day, too. So heaved a small sigh of relief. One day to go. Have to be more careful.

2006-04-02 14:43:00
5.   nick
I think markp gets it pretty much right……an essay called "Metaphors of Yankee-Hating" could certainly be written (I'll spare y'all). Writers always equate the Yanks with some kind of giant corporation (remember the famous US Steel comparison?) so that they can imagine their own team, an equally corporate entity, is somehow pure. They want to believe their team is refusing to play the game, rather than admit their team is just playing it less successfully, with less money.

To clarify: I'm not saying people can't sincerely identify their own class identity, position as underdogs, etc, with particular sports teams—I'm just pointing out that given the actual economic organization of baseball, this identification is a fantasy. Kempton knows this, probably: he's just playing the game….

2006-04-02 15:03:40
6.   The Mick 536
This wasn't an invitation to criticize one great American writer for his views, anti-jank, as they may have been. Murray Kempton kept us alive with his wit, eccentricities, and vision. As much as I would like to take a trip down memory lane with his works, I'd rather remember my personal interactions with the man. He was a dandy. Could have been Tom Wolfe. Preferred to be Murray. Taught me about radicalism with the Panthers On Trial and sports with Jock Sniffing. I had a time in my life when I either nodded to him, spoke with him, listened to him, and quipped with him a few days a week for eighteen months. Then I would see him riding his bike, smoking his pipe. He made it seem like he remembered me. I was just a frame in the movie he kept in his head. What a guy.
2006-04-02 15:34:30
7.   markp
I don't need an invitation to call biased "reporting" for what it is. A writer wrapping his own bias in pseudo-sociology is dishonest no matter what a great guy he is or how well he writes.
The Yankees were baseball players, period. They were good enough and lucky enough to win a lot of games and championships down through the years. Equating some baseball players to union busters and their goons and others to good union men isn't just intellectually dishonest-it's a complete distortion.
Another thing that makes me question this guys thought process is his equating the side that was fighting to free the slaves as the bad guys and the confederacy who were fighting to keep men enslaved as the good guys.
There wasn't anything noble about the southern cause. Pickett's charge is a monument to Lee's hubris, and not any more noble than the equally foolish Union charge at Chancellorseville that had come before (and from which Lee should have learned from.)
The article is just another example of sportswriters arrogance-as if their position makes it OK to hate a group because they're the ones with the power of the press. It isn't. Hating a bunch of guys because they play for a particular baseball team is stupid and wrong, no matter how eloquent the rationalization.
2006-04-02 15:58:39
8.   wsporter
MarkP, at the risk of being pedantic, I believe you mean the repeated Union charge up Marie's Heights at Fredericksburg in December 1862 under Burnside. There was no Union charge to speak of at Chancelorsville. There was an unforced retreat off of high ground by General Hooker which exposed the Union flank to General Jackson's famous flanking maneuver.

There is a powerful element of class consciousness that pervades the work that has uncomfortably distasteful feel when read in today's context. If one can look past it the work is easier to appreciate if not, not so much.

2006-04-02 19:34:54
9.   markp
I stand corrected.
As to the rest, I realize that writers (and others) considering the Confederacy as the "noble cause" wasn't considered as odious as it is today. But a writer's ignorance should prevent him from using it as an example, not encourage him. To infer that the southern cause in the civil war (and equally so in the events in places like Kansas and Missouri before and during) was anything but a vile attempt to continue enslaving people shows the writer is either ignorant, racist, or both.
2006-04-03 04:16:32
10.   wsporter
Markp, There are those who can appreciate the gallantry and skill with which the Confederate Military in the east fought and still understand that what they fought for what was perhaps "the worst cause for which any men ever fought". There are those that can't. Perhaps holding the opinion that the Army of Northern Virginia fought nobly for a cause is a moral blind spot.

I believe the point Mr. Kaufman was attempting to establish through metaphor is that fighting against great odds for a cause one believes in is noble in and of itself. The "cause" was, as many at that time and at the time of the War viewed it, independence from the Union and a struggle against great odds not the maintenance of the institution of slavery which would have of course been a direct and necessary byproduct of a Southern victory (despite some famously lamentable attempts at historic revision).

In the moral currency of today Mr. Kaufman chose a poor form. I will not attempt to defend what is clearly indefensible. I will however suggest that you examine this from a contextual point of view, consider the temporal factors and take a closer look at his life. I believe you will find he was neither ignorant nor a racist, in fact you will find that in his time he was anything but those things.

2006-04-03 05:07:11
11.   The Mick 536
Not Kaufman, Kempton.

My initial response attempted to laud the writer for his skills, insight, honesty, and sense of humor. Obviously a failure, I can only recommend the Briar Patch in its entirety to set the record straight.

The baseball commentary also deserves some response. Let us return to 1962. The sour taste from the Exodus remained. We lived through the threat of a third league. The Yankees had been on top of the leagues ostensibly since 1936. And if you cut out the war years, wow. Fans were split, divided like you could not believe unless you lived through it.

The Yanks were hated. They didn't just play the game, they controlled the game. They always won, and maybe, not always fairly. Mickey didn't fight. Willy did. They made KC and Baltimore their farms - turley/maris. The paid aging HOF players to be the bench - slaughter/mize. They built on the farm - kubek/tresh. They didn't have blacks - Ellie. The team fit the unique fence allignment, built for Ruth's left handed swing. First team to platoon, because they could afford it. On the other hand, they were known to be exceptionally cheap and cruel to their players.

The players didn't face the press; the team owned the ink. Not a lot of touchy feely guys, very business like. The Mick was notorious for ignoring fans and abusing newspeople. He was booed plenty. And his recent sainthood aside, he didn't always show up and play hard.

The box scores told all, but the wins weren't on the level, the difference in skills and talent being what it was. They routinely won going away, in the middle of September. I awoke every morning expecting to hear a victory, only concerned about whether Whitey won and how many homers the M & M hit. For non rooters, it wasn't fun.

Questions like, "how can you root for them?" were delivered with sneers and condescension. Fans stayed away from the stadium. When Red reported it, he was fired. Even their announcers were denounced for a lack of impartiality.

So in 1962, when the Mets appeared and the schedule expanded, the people responded by going to the Polo Grounds. Despite not having anyone who could play the game, fans had something to cheer fo again. Murray pointed that out, relying on Koppett's comment, the deep hatred against the Janks which still abounds.

I don't want to set myself up, but I have been a Jank fan for years. I ofter wondered who the other fans were. Where I grew up, people wore Dodger and Giant paraphenalia and then Met stuff (still like the light blue), not differnent colored Yankee garb.

I always felt alone and hated in my fanhood. Without any support for my thoughts, I believed that Jews rooted against the Yankees and for the Dodgers who were from Brooklyn. So even when I went to Hebrew school, I still had to hide my views.

Yeh. They are different. And don't forget that. They, as Georgie points out are expected to win. They do it the corporate way, not always successfully.

Then they fell from the top and the Metsies, in 1969 won it all. I really felt alone. But I never dumped them. I did my penance in those years, as I have since the last win. I am ready for another win.

I will forever bleed Jank pinstripes.

2006-04-03 05:46:27
12.   wsporter
Uh duh sorry, Kempton. It was too early not to proof read.

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